WineMy friends and I enjoyed a very fine bottle of Bordeaux on a half-priced wine night at a local four-star establishment. To make the most of the discount we went for something in the $600 range. However, we were given an even more expensive vintage because the sommelier insisted it was drinking better. At the end of the meal, we were presented with the bill and the issue of gratuity came up for hushed discussion.

There’s an argument either way about what to tip on items discounted by the restaurant, but for the sake of this post let’s just assume that it was an even $600. Normally we’d tip 20% on the full price of an item, but $120 in addition to a $300 dinner seemed a bit… disproportionate. On items where the cost can rise astronomically beyond the price of the food, where do you draw the line for good service? Or is there a line?

When I started this series, it was my hope to research and present some of the more arcane rules of tipping etiquette. I am very unhappy to report that there do not seem to be any rules; only vague cultural mores and confusion. Not even so-called authorities can seem to agree on whether there’s a cap or not. Not that they ever acknowledge differing opinions exist. Reading the various message boards, one quickly finds that this issue tends to spark a lot of heated responses and the two basic attitudes seem to go as follows:

  • If you can afford $600 or more for wine, you can afford to pay 20% uncapped gratuity on the total bill regardless of what you order. If you don’t like it, don’t eat out.
  • $120 for a tip on wine alone is over-payment for the level of service rendered. Something should be paid but it’s a gratuity, not income tax. If you don’t like it get a different job.

The first attitude is usually favored by servers and people who work in restaurants. It’s a position well-supported by common practice. As a culture we’ve established that 20% on the total bill of a nice restaurant is the norm and many people do it without question. Depending on how restaurants calculate their servers’ tips and the tips going to the sommelier, tipping less than 15% on a bottle of expensive wine may hurt the servers financially.

The default in almost every situation where there is a question of gratuity is to favor the highest possible amount. But usually 20% implies an extra buck or two– at triple digits the cost of service becomes prohibitive. Sure you probably can afford, it but it looks like less and less of a value.

From a consumer’s perspective, the level of effort required to serve a $100 bottle of wine is the same as a $700 bottle. It is no simple task, but is it really worth $120? A tip is, in theory, a measure of how good you thought the service was. So do you only look at the percentage or do you start to look at the dollar amount when it becomes significant?

If the full twenty percent isn’t right, then what is proper? There’s another school of thought which holds that gratuity should taper down as the cost of wine increases. I tend to agree with this opinion myself, but I’m not encouraged by the lack of definitive guidelines. Some people advocate tipping 10% on wine; others suggest a fixed price per bottle (like corkage), while still others say to tip up to a “certain amount”. Depending on whom you ask that “certain amount” appears to be a moving target from $20 to $500. And then there are those who don’t tip on alcohol at all.

Fortunately, there is a very easy, equitable answer to this maddening debate. Surprisingly none of the etiquette experts or service industry folks ever recommended it. I advocate asking, preferably up-front: “How much do customers usually tip on wine in this price range?” Every restaurant is different and some even have gratuity baked into the price of a bottle. A simple open-ended inquiry will quickly set the proper expectations. Whether you agree with them is another matter, but you can spend and tip with confidence.

People tend to be easily embarrassed in restaurant situations where price is involved. No one wants to appear low-class. However if a restaurant can afford to charge $600 a bottle they can afford to answer any questions you have graciously and respectfully. If they can’t manage that then the issue of tipping gets a lot easier. Diners, even people in the industry, have so many different opinions on what to tip that the servers will probably be glad you asked.

At this point, many of you are probably thinking, “Just buy a nice bottle retail and pay corkage.” That’s certainly the economical option… though some also propose you tip on the price of your own bottle. I think that’s going a bit far myself. It’s not a sale, so tipping on the corkage fee is sufficient.

When not wading through angry forum posts on tipping, Mike writes Broken Cupid, a dating blog for single gay men.